As the 60th anniversary of the first Everest climb approaches, Conall Ó Fátharta looks back on the achievement of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
"Well George, we knocked the bastard off."
WITH those immortal words to his friend George Lowe, the self-described “average bloke” Edmund Hillary issued perhaps the greatest understatement in the history of mountaineering.
Just days before, on May 29, 1953, at 11.30am, both he and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to stand on the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth.
Since then, thousands of people have trodden in their first steps to stand, albeit briefly, at the top of the world.
On the 60th anniversary of this monumental achievement, the epic story of the first ascent has lost none of its allure.
There are other perilously high mountains, but few have captured the imagination like Everest. To the Nepalese, she is known as Sagarmatha and to the Tibetans Chomolungma — ‘Goddess Mother of the Earth’.
At 8,848m (29,029 ft), Everest is the signature peak of the vast Himalaya range, which stretches for over 1,500 miles from Kashmir to Assam.
Triangulated as Peak XV in 1856, foreigners first set their eyes on the great mountain in 1849. Seventy years later, the expedition that included Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay was the ninth attempt on the mountain. Up until the end of 2011, an estimated 3,450 climbers had successfully climbed Everest, with over 200 having died.
Despite all the heroic success and tragic failure, the mountain still captures the imagination of the world.
Remarkably, with all of the modern advances in technology, the annual death rate has changed very little since people began trying to reach its summit in 1921, with one death occurring for every 10 ascents. The majority of deaths occur on the descent.
It’s not surprising given the sheer mammoth size of the mountain. An expedition to Everest usually takes over two months, in order to give the body time to adjust to operating in such high altitude.
At its summit, there is 66% less oxygen in the normal air you breathe, making even the most basic tasks very difficult to complete. Your thought processes and decision-making abilities become dangerously impaired. At such high altitudes, that can mean death.
In fact, once you reach 8,000m (26,000ft), the body is operating in what mountaineers call the ‘Death Zone’.
At this height, it is impossible for the human body to acclimatise as there is not enough oxygen to sustain human life. As a result, the body starts to produce additional red blood cells and the heart beats faster. Non-essential body function such as the digestive system shut down or slow dramatically so everything can be directed towards one goal — keeping the brain alive.
To this day, few people attempt to climb the mountain without carrying oxygen. In 1978, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler became the first to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. It was a feat many doctors, scientists and mountaineers had previously thought impossible.
Since it was first conquered in 1953, people as young as 13 years old and as old as 76 have made it to the top of Everest. Apa Sherpa has climbed it 21 times.
However, as legendary British mountaineer Chris Bonington has said, this should not take away from the enormity of what Hillary and Tenzing achieved. “With the passage of time, it would be a mistake to underestimate the achievement of the 1953, and the fact that so many have now climbed there shouldn’t cloud the enormity of this feat. We should not forget the difference between following in someone’s footsteps and blazing a trail,” he said.
There were 13 men, not including Sherpas, on the 1953 expedition which first conquered Everest.
Led by John Hunt, there were 10 climbers and three people with specific duties — a doctor, a physiologist and a cameraman. The essential goal of the expedition was a simple one — to put two men on the top of Everest for the first time in history.
The assault on the great mountain began in earnest in early April. It would be well over a month before Hillary and Tenzing stood on top.
The real work began with Hillary, George Lowe, George Band and Mike Westmacott taking on the Western Cwm (the so-called ‘valley of silence’). The group, working in relays from Base Camp, began to establish a series of camps with supply depots up the perilous Khumbu Icefall and into the Cwm. They then came back down to rest and recuperate while another party made higher treks using oxygen.
On May 2, Hillary arranged a test of the oxygen equipment to see how well it worked at the lower altitudes. Along with Tenzing, they climbed to Camp IV — Advance Base camp and returned that afternoon. Although tired, Hillary proclaimed the oxygen set as “bloody marvellous”.
What really stood out about this run, however, was just how strong both Hillary and Tenzing were. It was a clear indication that the pair could be the strongest to take on the summit.
The leader of the expedition, John Hunt, had always wanted, if possible, for a Sherpa to be in the pair that went for the top. It would be the perfect statement of East and West co-operating for a common goal of being the first people to stand on the roof of the world.
Once Camp V had been established, the next major challenge of the ascent was to overcome the great Lhotse Face. To get to the South Col, all climbers must scale the 1,125m (3,700ft) mammoth wall of glacial blue ice. With pitches of 40 and 50 degrees, and even 80 degrees in places, it remains a formidable climb to this day.
The team had adjudged this to be an easy climb but realised that the summit teams would have been exhausted trying to lead the route up the face on their own. As a result, George Lowe, Mike Westmacott and George Band were charged with the task of making a route up the ice without oxygen.
With altitude taking its toll on the team, Lowe was left to lead the face on his own. In his book; The Conquest of Everest: Original Photographs from the Legendary First Ascent, Lowe called this ascent “some of the steepest climbing I had ever experienced”. Lowe and Sherpa Ang Nyima fixed ropes and cut steps for much of the way up to 25,000ft without oxygen in, as Lowe put it, a “heavy, soul-sapping effort … This was the front end of the attempt of Everest and it felt like it”.
Lowe toiled for around 10 days before, exhausted, others came up to support him. It was a phenomenal show of strength and endurance and has been recognised in the years since as a playing a pivotal role in getting Hillary and Tenzing to the top. Yet, he himself felt he had “failed in a way” as he had not made it to the South Col as he had promised he would.
By May 26, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans were set to make an attempt on the South Peak and the summit, if possible, using oxygen. Both men were seen go over the top of the South Summit (28,720ft) and heading towards the summit. At this point, they had gone higher than any human beings had ever been before and looked strong enough to reach the top.
In the hours that followed, the weather closed in over the summit obscuring the view. This raised fears for Bourdillon and Evans who, by now, disappeared from view from those waiting at Camp VIII.
Later that afternoon, the pair were seen emerge from the mists to make a descent of the couloir Lowe described as “frightening to watch”. Both men exhausted, they slid and fell as they anchored and belayed each other back to camp. Frightening as it may have been, Bourdillon later described it as “quite fun!”.
As it turned out, the pair didn’t make it much further past the South Summit. They had reached the highest point ever attained on the mountain.
Crucially, Evans and Bourdillon had left two oxygen bottles below the South Summit as they had enough to return to the South Col. These two bottles would prove crucial for getting Hillary and Tenzing to the top just a few days later.
On May 29, the pair were ready to make history. They set off from the final Camp XI at the ridiculously high 27,900ft — well inside the Death Zone.
At 8am, Hillary and Tenzing were seen from below going strongly but slowly up the final slopes of the South Summit. At 9am, they had disappeared over the South Peak. That was the last anyone would see of them until 1pm but George Lowe says he felt sure they would reach the summit.
At 1pm, excitement grew as the pair were seen descending. At this point, nobody knew if indeed Hillary and Tenzing had reached the top. They stopped at Camp IX at 2pm for an hour before descending again.
Hillary’s great friend Lowe packed a thermos and camera and just before 4pm to set out to meet the pair. His words describe the poignant but typically modest moment when Hillary confirmed that the summit of Mount Everest had
finally been conquered. “I dragged up again and met Ed and Tenzing at the foot of the couloir — perhaps 500ft above the Col. They were moving fairly rapidly — the only tiredness showed in their slightly stiff-legged walking as they cramponed the last bit of the couloir. I crouched, back against the wind, and poured out the Thermos contents as they came up. Ed unclipped his mask and grinned a tired greeting, sat on the ice and said in his matter-of-fact way — ‘Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!’.”
Hillary’s own description of those final steps to stand on the summit are similarly modest.
“It was too late to take risks now. I asked Tenzing to belay me strongly, and I started cutting a cautious line of steps up the ridge. Peering from side to side and thrusting with my ice axe, I tried to discover a possible cornice, but everything seemed solid and firm. I waved Tenzing up to me. A few more whacks of the ice-axe, a few very weary steps and we were on the summit of Everest … I turned and looked at Tenzing. Even beneath his oxygen mask and the icicles hanging from his hair, I could see his infectious grin of sheer delight. I held out my hand, and in silence we shook in good Anglo-Saxon fashion. But this was not enough for Tenzing, and impulsively he threw his arm around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back in mutual congratulations.”
They stood on the top of the world for just 15 minutes. Hillary then took the famous photo of Tenzing standing on the summit. His own ascent was not recorded as Tenzing had never used a camera before and as Hillary put it “the summit of Everest was hardly the place to show him how”.
People might not know it but Irish involvement in epic Everest attempts has been clear from the very start. As Lorna Siggins points out in her newly republished book, Everest Calling: The Irish Journey, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Howard Bury made it to just under 1,000m below the summit in 1921. No mean feat when you consider that the mountain was not climbed until a full 32 years later.
Born in Offaly to Anglo-Irish stock, Bury’s life could have been plucked straight out of the pages of an adventure novel. A botanist, spy, soldier and unwilling climber, he roamed all over India, Tibet and China, leaving wonderfully detailed diaries telling tales of adventure which boys to this day would dream about.
His job in 1921 was to take make a thorough reconnaissance of the mountain, its approaches and a possible route to the top. English mountaineer George Mallory, who famously disappeared with Sandy Irvine on the summit ridge of Everest in 1924, was also on the expedition. He loathed the Irish man.
However, Howard Bury’s contribution to staking a route to the top was not forgotten and in 1953, when Hillary and Tenzing became the first people to summit the mountain, he was one of only two people told of the news in advance of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
There Irish involvement with Everest largely ended until 1991, when eyes turned to an all-island effort to get an Irishman to the top of the world. This expedition, led by Belfast man Dawson Stelfox, took a more difficult route to the top than Hillary. Going from the north-eastern side, they took the route of Mallory and Irvine. Beset by bad weather, it was gruelling effort.
Just two days shy of being exactly 40 years to the day since Hillary and Tenzing first climbed the great mountain, Dermot Somers’s radio at Base Camp crackled into life with the news everyone wanted to here.
“Everest calling Rongbuk. Come in please, over . . . Dermot. The altimeter is reading 8,848 metres and I’m sitting on the summit of the world.”
The voice speaking was Stelfox — now the first Irish man to climb Everest.
In the 20 years since, a number of Irish climbers have made it to the top of Everest. Noel Hanna from Galway has climbed it a remarkable five times, Cork man Pat Falvey has scaled it twice and Clare O’Leary from Bandon has become the first Irishwoman to make it to the top. That’s to name but a few.
As the years have passed, the commercialisation of the mountain has become more and more prevalent, with those with enough money now being dragged up the mountain by the hundreds.
This has led to accusations that some people are trying to climb the mountain that have no business being there. It has also led to claims of a “summit at all costs” mentality.
Edmund Hillary himself waded into one particular controversy in 2006 when he criticised fellow New Zealander Mark Inglis — who had just become the first double amputee to reach the top of Mount Everest.
Inglis admitted that his party had passed another climber David Sharp on their summit push and found him close to death. More than 40 climbers passed Sharp that day without offering assistance. Some even reported seeing him struggle with his oxygen apparatus. He eventually died of oxygen deficiency having made the summit.
Inglis said Sharp had no oxygen when they found him and that his team tried to give him oxygen before putting in a distress call and pushing on for the top. He defended the actions of his team by saying there was no way Sharp could have been carried down from so close to the summit. Hillary described Inglis’s behaviour during the incident as “pathetic”.
“I think the whole attitude toward climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying,” said Hillary. “The people just want to get to the top … It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say ‘Good morning’ and pass on by.”
Hillary pointed out that his expedition in 1953 “would never for a moment have left one of the members or a group of members just lie there and die while we plugged on towards the top”.
As with death on Mount Everest, its commercialisation was, sadly, something of an inevitability. What was the preserve of elite climbers is now within the grasp of somebody with the financial means and the drive to get to the top. What drove Hillary was not fame, fortune or ego. He wanted to blaze a trail for the thrill of adventure.
“Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it.”
- The Conquest of Everest: Original Photographs from the Legendary First Ascent, by George Lowe and Huw Lewis-Jones; and Everest Calling: The Irish Journey, by Lorna Siggins, are on sale now
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